Let’s call time on libraries, the BBC and art galleries and unleash a cultural renaissance

We know that long-term economic success requires creative destruction of existing industries in order that innovation triumphs over obsolescence. We also know that the short-term pain of creative destruction is real and politically unattractive. And yet we might expect that creative destruction would be at its strongest in our, well, creative industries. But actually there is such a lot of tax-payer funded protectionism that some parts of our creative institutions are becoming obsolescent and facing a sad decline. The UK is much more at ease privatising drinking water than reforming the “High Culture” industry. But we must tackle “Creative Protectionism”, so where do we start?

Like most other Northern working class boys of my era, I grew up oblivious to High Culture. But I had the (almost corny) experience of being rescued by a passionate teacher of English Literature, who intervened when I was threatened with explusion. He wasn’t even my class teacher. But he gave up his free time to immerse me in the Literary Pantheon. The more obscure or difficult the text, the more important I knew it to be. I couldn’t get enough of it and he pushed me off to read a degree in English at Oxford, the first person from my school to go there. But I was poleaxed at the first lecture I attended when a Marxist professor argued that the whole edifice of “Great Literature” was constructed solely for the economic benefit of publishers and academics whose livelihoods depended on a continuing demand for what they in particular knew, owned and could sell. This seemed just too cynical until I attended my first tutorial. Embarking on a compulsory course in Anglo Saxon, my charming old buffer of a tutor explained that he was one of less than 50 people left in the world who could proficiently speak and write in Anglo Saxon. He had himself been taught by Tolkien. He was sweet enough to explain that until his tenured generation retired we would all have to learn this language because there was nothing else they knew or could teach. (The compulsory course died with them.) And then I met and became great friends with a truly gifted young academic and author, who rejected the almost certain chance to teach literature at Oxford or become the next Dario Fo as elitist nonsense. He chose (successfully) to write TV soap opera scripts for a living. He was clear that literary merit in something watched by millions of ordinary people was worth much more than teaching dead poets to posh kids at Oxford or being feted by a few thousand government-subsidised rich theatre-goers. These formative experiences have set my enduring principles for public policy on culture – the importance of giving everyone, irrespective of background, inspiring access to the best cultural experiences; the need to avoid funding being permanently tied-up in out-of-date priorities, defended by those whose self-interest is threatened by change; the need to create new cultural giants, not just curate the old ones; the overwhelming importance of improving the everyday cultural experience of the majority, rather than occasional events for the minority.
If these sound like good principles, how is the UK doing right now? Well, the sheer scale of cultural opportunities available is overwhelming and exploding. And it’s about more than the internet. There are now 350 UK literary festivals each year (compared to just 3 of them 30 years ago) and hundreds more music festivals. London’s top museums are world beaters (e.g. the British Museum had nearly 7m visitor last year, up 40% on a decade ago). The headline art exhibitions sell-out and attract astonishing numbers (e.g. David Hockney’s most recent, and wonderful, London show attracted nearly three-quarters of a million of people). London’s 45 theatres attracted an audience of nearly 15m last year, up by half on 30 years ago, and offering 270 new productions and filling three-quarters of the seats. The number of new books being published each year keeps rising and the sale of translated books has risen by 30% in the last decade. The art form of choice for young men is poetry – with thousands of them writing and performing rap music. And then there is the internet. 100 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube every minute of the day and YouTube gets 1 billion views a day. A quarter of billion people are active on twitter and a billion on Facebook, wanting to be followed and sharing what they’ve read, heard or seen from all over the world. There are more than 12m active bloggers self-publishing their work. Digital technology is giving us instant access to a huge heritage stock of culture. We have 500 years of music to listen to, 100 years of cinema and 60 years of TV to watch, along with 700 years of paintings and 2000 years of literature and sculpture to admire. And then we can share what we find.

Cultural fashions come and go. In the market, this works fine when the consumer is king. Money follows preferences at, often, great speed. So today’s UK cinema audiences are just one-tenth of their peak in the late 1940s. But they have tripled from the lowest ever point in 1984 when home videos first appeared. Antique furniture is another case study. Victorian and Edwardian furniture became fashionable and valuable in the 1990s, but in the last decade the price of Victorian and Edwardian furniture has fallen by two-thirds. In fact, the price of all antique furniture has fallen by a third in that period and continues to decline. In neither case has the Government felt the need to intervene. It hasn’t kept open surplus cinemas or asked the Bank of England to buy surplus Victorian furniture to keep prices high. Furniture and cinema are two cultural markets where the government doesn’t get much involved. But there is no real rhyme or reason to taxpayer intervention in culture. So, Government spends £1 billion each year on libraries, but virtually nothing on creating new literature. Taxpayers are obliged (on pain of going to prison) to put more than £2 billion each year into TV shows which look just the same as the free-to-watch content on the commercial channels. Classical musicians who perform (often pretty average) music created hundreds of years ago are handsomely looked after by the taxpayer but experimental pop musicians who create new music receive nothing. Billions of pounds is tied-up in operating bricks-and-mortar (e.g. Victorian art galleries) whilst broadband infrastructure (giving digital access, for example, to the world’s galleries) remains poor in many areas. The richest people in the world are given generous subsidies to watch opera in London (reducing their tickets to £175), whilst lower-income families have no hope of affording the average £50 ticket for a popular West End theatre production.

But it’s not just that public spending is arbitrary. Perhaps even more important is that those spending our taxes on culture are satisfying fewer and fewer consumers. Public spending is driven by inertia, giving money to the same things year after year. And if anyone challenges that spending, they will be met by a ferocious, well organised and deafening lobby protecting the status quo. This is usually enough to deter most politicians from asking too many questions. I am yet to meet the politician who doesn’t fear the roar of the librarian, the armchair grumbling of the Radio 4 listener or the eyebrow arching of the ballet-loving plutocrat. But in the last year only 20% of people went to an art gallery or exhibition, just 20% saw a play in a theatre, only 4% went to an opera or a dance event. More striking is how few people were publicly creative themselves- only about 1 in 50 sang, played an instrument, published their writing or took part in a play. If so few people consume or create “The Arts”, why is the political lobby for them so strong? Clearly, they trade heavily on the lazy assumption that “The Arts” are morally and spiritually good for people and that without them civilised values would quickly fall apart. But they also have a brilliant self-serving defence mechanism – the less that anyone wants the particular cultural service, the stronger the moral argument to protect it from the market and the greater the need for public subsidy. Libraries are a good example of this. 74% of people believe libraries are important for the wider community but only 47% believe they are important for themselves; only 36% of adults actually visit a library and only 17% of people borrow books. Indeed, adult lending (of both books and audio-visual) has halved since 2000, with book borrowing now largely focused on children and prolific adult readers. Each time a book is borrowed from a public library it costs the taxpayer about £4. That’s about the wholesale price of a new book. So it would, of course, be as cheap to give everyone a new book to keep as it is to lend them an old one and ask for it back! People read more than ever; they just don’t care for or need libraries. It is not just libraries which are in decline. There have been sharp downturns in visitor numbers at traditional art galleries outside London. This is in spite of the national decision to abolish entrance charges. The fall in numbers in 2013, in just one year, was striking even at some of our finest galleries – e.g. the Ashmolean in Oxford down 12%, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery down 13%, the Scottish Portrait Gallery down 20% and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool down 30%. This has been a clear trend over the last 10 years – whether it’s the new blockbusters like the Royal Armouries in Leeds only getting two-thirds of the visitors it had 10 years ago or the traditional civic museums like the Shipley Gallery in Gateshead where numbers have halved. These trends can be seen in modern media too. Let’s look at TV, which is something that young people have stopped doing. Those aged 16-24 watch less than half as many hours of TV as those aged 55-64, whilst pensioners watch TV for nearly 40% of the time that they are awake. The median age of a BBC1 viewer is 59 (compared to 40 for the population as a whole). But it’s not just that people watch less TV. It’s that they watch much less of what’s been funded by their taxes. Whereas 30 years ago, BBC1 and BBC2 had just over half of the total TV audience, today they have little more than a quarter. But every household is obliged to pay £80 a year just for these 2 channels, whether they want them or not. Meanwhile, BBC TV struggles to look different to its main rivals, comes second in many categories it used to dominate (eg news, sport, music). It’s as similar picture on radio, if you excuse the pun. The majority of listeners under 45 years of age listen to commercial channels and 85% of people never listen to BBC local radio, a service almost exclusively made for pensioners.
The budgets for all these subsidised services (be they libraries, galleries or public service TV) are clearly under pressure, but they are not being fundamentally challenged. When under pressure, these subsidy-junkies quickly ditch their public service mission and play politics. So in spite of its failure to attract young audiences, the BBC is scrapping BBC3, its one TV channel for young people, in order to protect budgets for its oldest audiences. Guess which audience is twice as likely to vote or pressurise politicians? Given that public funding is limited and that out-of-date providers hog our cultural assets, if we’re going to break the current inertia we will need some big, simple bold proposals. Here are 4 from me to stimulate the debate:

(1) Give the 10 million poorest people a Culture Card worth £150 per year and let them make their own choices on what culture they want to access

This is my “prevenge” against the argument that taxpayer-funded universal services are the only want to protect the poorest in society. Given that we can save some £1.5 billion per year from my options below, we can afford to put £150 into the hands of each of the 10m poorest people in society. Lacking the paternalistic gene, I would rather let people spend this as they wish. But I accept that any progress in this area will require a modernised paternalism rather than its abolition. If the £150 is credited to a Culture Card (or account) people can spend this on approved items. There can be lots of debate about what gets approved. But £150 is a meaningful amount of money. It is more than enough for example to buy both a Kindle and a year’s subscription to Kindle Unlimited giving access to 600,000 books. It’s enough to buy 3 theatre tickets. It’s enough to visit a full price art gallery exhibition every month. If allowed, it’s enough to buy a subscription to both Spotify and Netflix.

(2) End public funding for libraries and let people find new solutions

If we just said that by 2016 public funding for libraries was ending, new solutions would emerge. £1 billion would be saved. If not recycled into my Culture Card, this could alternatively provide a 5% cut in council tax or a trebling of the Arts Council budget, depending on your preferences. Only about 10% of library spend goes on books and materials. The biggest cost is staffing. So the first option is for volunteers to step forward. Indeed they have been doing just this since austerity started in 2010 – the number of volunteers has doubled and 1 in 6 libraries are now entirely run by volunteers. The world is full of local volunteers, e.g. the 200,000 volunteers in charity shops. The second biggest cost is the buildings. Very rarely is there a reason anymore to have a dedicated library building. The world is full of under-used buildings – shops, community centres, public sector offices, etc. Given that library catalogues are available online and content is going digital, the opportunity for libraries to co-locate are legion. In this new world, libraries would be free to charge for books and seek philanthropic sponsorship. People might be encouraged to donate their previously read books, recirculating books in the same way that charity shops do right now. With a billion pounds a year of annual savings and lots of capital receipts from buildings, Government could endow a national foundation with the funds to create a national infrastructure to support local libraries – it could hold one big collection (rather than the 200 we have now); it could use Amazon or others to manage storage and distribution; it could digitise books and give access to home downloading; it could create one big website, linked to all the local library charities, or maybe it could just add an item to Amazon’s market place. Or maybe this is all just a new version of an out-of-date service. Do we actually need to bother with physical books at all? It looks as though the market is about to explode with Spotify-for-books solutions (Oyster, Kindle Unlimited, etc) where for a pound or two a week readers will have unlimited access to e-books. Maybe we should just close libraries and rely on the Culture Card and the online book services? /p>

(3) End the BBC Licence Fee, sell-off the BBC and let it thrive

Ending the BBC’s licence fee is (and is intended to be) an act of kindness, not cruelty. I think it will thrive and grown in a market where it has to earn its revenue from the free-choice of consumers. Conversely, I think it will die a long and horrible death if it stays licence funded, where under pressure from a declining revenue it retreats to a more and more conservative offer to its core, older audience to muster their political support. In its propaganda for keeping the licence fee, the BBC routinely cites market research showing that the public is willing to pay more than the £145 for its services. In which case, why compel them (under threat of criminal conviction and time in prison) to pay for it? Let’s assume that the BBC stayed advert-free and look at some examples. It’s hard to imagine BBC Radio 5’s 7m listeners would be unwilling to pay £11 per year to cover its existing costs. I, and most listeners, would certainly be willing to pay several times more. I would be pleased to save the £10 per year needed for Radio 4 (which I am coming to loathe) but I’m sure most of the 11m listeners would be willing to pay several times more than £10. I’d probably subscribe to the £100 per year needed for BBC TV, but if a lot opted out I look forward to being heavily wooed with new exciting content to go as far as £200 per year. But then many parents with young children would probably pay that just for CBBC and CBeebies. These few examples preview a new world if which both popular and niche services thrive and expand in response to customer demand. In terms of practicalities, payment for digital TV and online content are already well established. The BBC would need to find a way to paywall radio, but I am sure that’s not beyond them. As a country we could sell-off the BBC, perhaps as a number of different companies to encourage diversity and competition. Let’s assume that generated a£10 billion receipt. This could fund a new “British Production Trust”, which like the Wellcome Trust for science invests its endowment in the capital markets to generate an annual income to pay for good works. The “BPT” would finance (and co-finance) high quality, innovative or niche content to fill gaps in the commercial market. With a £10 billion endowment and assuming a commercial return on a third of its projects, it could probably afford £500m each year – equal to the current budget for BBC2 or the national BBC radio channels.

(4) Empty our art galleries of their collections, fill them with working artists and get the old artworks into new everyday settings

There are 210,000 oil paintings in public collections in the UK. Visiting them all would require you to get around 3,200 different collections. Most people just visit their local collections. But once they’ve been once or twice they’ve seen them and the incentive to return is limited. But even if you managed to visit all 3,200 collections (a feat which assuming one visit per week would take 60 years of dedication) you would only see one-fifth of the 210,000 paintings. Only 20% of the paintings are on display to the public. The other 170,000 paintings are in storage. My proposal is that all 210,000 paintings should be available on request for public display in the everyday places where the public goes about its normal business. They could be lent out to any one with a public or semi-public space – in offices and workplaces, in supermarkets, in schools, in airports, in churches, in restaurants, in colleges, in shopping malls, in leisure centres, etc. Most of these buildings have just as much as security and climate control as galleries and archives. One way or another public funding has bought or maintained these collections, so the public should get to look at them, in the places they visit. It would be great to think of Tesco curating inspired exhibitions or a primary school using a term with 3 Pre-Raphaelite paintings as the basis of a history project on life before Raphael, in his time and during the revival of the style which predated him. The marvellous Public Catalogue Foundation has digitally catalogued all 210,000 of these paintings, so the lending can begin. Emptied of their collections, our galleries could be filled with the studios and exhibitions of working artists. There could be high profile competitions to win a year’s placement in the gallery, letting the public see artists at work and giving them the chance to buy the art produced. Rather than paying a bored security guard in a gallery to watch almost nobody visit some dull Victorian paintings, why not use those salaries to create a bursaries for each artist during their stay in the gallery? Imagine school visits to these working artists inspiring a next generation of youngsters to want to produce their own work, rather than boring the pants off them touring the hallowed galleries of yesterday’s fashions. Clearly there are a few national galleries in London where the sheer numbers of tourists mean that the same old collection is constantly fresh to large numbers of visitors. They might stick with the old model, but introduce entrance charges instead of taxpayer-funded free entrance. Most visitors expect charges, which they pay in other capital cities.

These are just 4 ideas we could unleash if we’re brave enough to break the inertia in our publicly funded arts and move on. There are lots more. For example, as cinemas move from celluloid to digital in the next few years, imagine if they could be convinced (or received a little public funding) to give open access to half their screens on the quiet nights (Monday to Thursday) allowing young kids to put on cinema showing of homemade movies for their social networks? The extra sales of popcorn alone would probably pay for any costs. But before the new comes the end of the old and to inspire the public we must be bold.

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One thought on “Let’s call time on libraries, the BBC and art galleries and unleash a cultural renaissance

  1. Like the public display idea, very innovative.

    On most of these ideas you ignore the market displacement problem – privatising the bbc would end most other commercial broadcasting in this country one way or another (with the exception of sky sports and the network it cross subsidises). Either the bbc would devastate their ad revenue (already in long term decline), or would steal their subscribers. The same is true of other subsidised arts if they went commercial. (That’s why a smarter way to get rid of it is to run it down over a number of years until it basically becomes PBS. That is current gov policy, and better than yours at achieving your objective.)

    You might say this a good thing, in the end subsidy just inflates the sector, but you ignore that there might be valid reasons to inflate those sectors (passing on national culture, aiding integration etc etc). I have always found conservative voters most susceptible to those arguments, but Tory activists (much more free marketeer, much less patriotic) less.

    Ultimately the argument for culture (especially the classical music world you disparage) is that there is a value keeping certain traditions alive even if they are not commercially viable (fwiw you seem unaware that one of the points of the BBC is a massive cross subsidy to classical music). You may not think so (like Anglo-Saxon) but sufficiently numerous or influential others do.

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